CHAPTER VII. Of Humility
27 Jan. 28 May. 27 Sept.
Let him consider that he is always beheld from heaven by God, and that his actions are everywhere seen by the eye of the Divine Majesty, and are every hour reported to Him by His angels. This the prophet telleth us, when he sheweth how God is ever present in our thoughts, saying: “God searcheth the heart and the reins” (Psalm 7:10). And again “The Lord knoweth the thoughts of men” (Psalm 93:11). And he also saith: “Thou hast understood my thoughts afar off” (Psalm 138:3); and “The thought of man shall confess to Thee” (Psalm 75:11). In order, therefore, that he may be on his guard against evil thoughts, let the humble brother say ever in his heart: “Then shall I be unspotted before Him, if I shall have kept me from mine iniquity” (Psalm 17:24).
One cannot read this section of the First Degree of Humility without referring to Psalm 138, which Psalm we pray every Thursday at Vespers. Saint Benedict quotes but one verse of the Psalm—Intellexisti cogitationes meas de longe, “Thou hast understood my thoughts afar off”— but the Psalm in its entirety pervades all that he says here.
Saint Benedict would have each man hear the Lord address him as He addressed the prophet Jeremias, saying: “I, the Lord, see into man’s heart, and read his inmost thoughts, to every life awarding what its doings have earned” (Jeremias 17:10). When one goes before Our Lord in adoration, it is good to say to Him, “Thou, Lord Jesus, seest into my heart and readest my inmost thoughts. I lay my heart like an open book before Thee. Read Thou my inmost thoughts: calm what is turbulent; silence what is strident; pacify what is belligerent; wash what is unclean; illumine what is obscure; raise up what is earthly; humble what is proud; do Thou in me all that Thou desirest to find in me.”
Even better than this is to go before Our Lord, adoring and saying nothing. Adoration and abandonment go together in our prayer and, over time, become a way of life that prepares us for death. On 6 April 1698, Mother Mectilde received her last Holy Communion between midnight and one o’clock, prolonging her thanksgiving until morning. At about six o’clock, Father Paulinus, her confessor, asked, Ma Mère, what are you doing? What are you thinking?” She answered with words that she had often said before; in the hour of her death, these same words summed up her life: J’adore et me soumets. “I adore and I submit.” Understand by this, “I adore and I bow low before all that God is; I submit to all that He decrees; I surrender to all that He wills and permits; I abandon myself to all the designs of His providence.”
We, in our human complexity, feel the need of words to express the movement of our hearts, and then we feel the need of words to explain our words, and of words to explain the words that explain our words. To all of us who do our best to persevere in prayer, there comes a season when words fall away and only silence remains, but it is a silence of adoration and self-abandonment to God. From time to time, words— few words—may be necessary to deepen the silence, but it is in the silence that we make ourselves over to God. The silence of our prayer reaches the silence of the Host, and the silence of the Host penetrates the heart. Contemplative prayer, especially prayer in the presence of the Sacred Host, is an alternance of words and silence. Silence allows one to listen deeply and to look intently. Sic in sancto apparui tibi, ut viderem virtutem tuam et gloriam tuam. “So in the holy place, I contemplate thee, ready for the revelation of thy greatness, thy glory” (Psalm 62:3).
Know this: God sees into your heart and mine; He reads your inmost thoughts and mine. God is more present to us than we are to ourselves. Saint Augustine says, “Thou wert more inward to me than my most inward part” (Confessions III, 6, 11). In some way, this truth greatly simplifies our prayer. When we go to God in prayer there is no need for lengthy explanations, manifestations of conscience, detailed confessions, and tortuous self–scrutinies. If one does these things — and I am not at all advising that one should — one does them for oneself, in an effort to come to better knowledge of oneself, and not for God’s sake. In one of her most remarkable letters—it is from 1667—Mother Mectilde writes to Mother Saint–François–de–Paule Charbonnier, who has fallen prey to the torment of scrupulosity. She says:
Having learned that you continue to be in distress, I thought that I ought to tell you what Our Lord is giving me concerning your dispositions. First of all, I find that you have fallen into a very big self–absorption and focus on yourself […] I tell you, on the part of God, that you are too preoccupied with your miseries, your sins, your wicked deeds, your sacrileges, your damnation, your hell, and your loss of God. Instead of going to death in all things, I see that you have focused on your emptiness, and it terrifies you. You have tried to fix it by making yourself inwardly industrious and, instead of finding relief, in your powerlessness you have found trouble, and in your poverty you have found hell. You have been racked with distress, and you have kept neither rule nor measure. Your eternal damnation seems to you a certainty. In a word, all is lost: no mercy, no hope of recovery. Add to all this, if you will, all that your mind suggests concerning vice and sin. Have it your way. Be, if you wish, worse than all the devils. This doesn’t frighten me, nor does it surprise me. In all of this, you have but a single sin: you have quitted being nothing in order to be something. You have quitted the state of death in order to get life. You have wished to be something in God and in grace, and you are but a miserable nothing who needs to be forgotten not only by everybody, but even by God Himself, since you believe yourself unworthy of being remembered by Him.
If I were at your side, I would convince you of the truths that I am telling you, but not being able to be there, I beg you to give credence to what my pen is saying. And begin, as soon as you have seen what I have written above, to fall on your knees, and to say with your heart and with your mouth:
My God and my Saviour, Jesus Christ, I ask pardon of You for having wished to be, and for having kept Your grace from reducing me to nothing. I accept all my miseries as a penance, and I renew in Your Spirit the vow that makes me a victim destined for death, stripping me of all the rights that my self–love claims to hold over me, and of all my interests of grace, in time and in eternity. I give You everything, holding nothing back. For myself, I hold onto being nothing in all things and in every place, and this forever, so as to let You be, and let You work in me all that will please You.
After this act, stop your examinations, your self–absorption, your scrutinizing, your fears, your resistances to obedience and to Communion. We order you, in God’s name, to stand there like a brute beast (cf. Ps 72:23) in the loss of everything, and even of your salvation and perfection. It is no more question of all that, but only of remaining in this simple abandonment with so much firmness that, even if you saw hell open to swallow you up, you would not turn aside from your pure abandonment, to save yourself from it.
Now you see to what you must die. And it is this that you want to avoid. I would scold you readily for resisting, as you do, the merciful conduct of God. Do not allow your human spirit nor your reason to answer back or argue about what we order you to do. Walk with your head bowed beneath the law of the Lord. His grace towards you is too much. Do not be so miserable as to reject it under the pretext that you are offending Him.
I forbid you to amuse yourself by dwelling on your sins and by looking upon your Communions as sacrileges. Lose and annihilate all these self–absorptions and scrutinies in simple abandonment, as I propose it to you. Take no part in anything going on inside you, be it for good or for ill. Leave all of that aside without discussion. God will be the judge of it and He will make of it as He sees fit. And what about yourself? Keep yourself in an eternal nothingness that sees nothing anymore, no longer understanding, and no longer speaking for yourself nor for anyone else.
Let me repeat this for you again: remain like one dead with regard to yourself, and even with regard to God. Be like something that is no longer and that must never be again. And, if you follow faithfully the rule that I give you on the part of God, you will find what you cannot imagine and what, at present, I cannot explain to you. Go on blindly where I am leading you, and believe that, by the grace of God, I know what I am talking about. In obedience, walk securely, and do not stop praying for her who, in Jesus, is all yours. Remember then to stand like a brute beast in the presence of the Lord (cf. Ps 72:23), without thought, without acting, without power. Nothingness has none of these things.
God sees us far better and more deeply than we see ourselves; He knows our entire personal histories perfectly and comprehensively in a single simple gaze. There is great comfort in holding to this truth. A man can exhaust himself in trying to explain to himself and others the reasons for his peculiarities, his neuroses, his immaturity, his obsessions, and even his sins. Men pay vast sums of money to therapists in an effort to understand themselves. Self–knowledge is necessary and useful, but too much probing of oneself, too much turning over of one’s past, can lead a man into a kind of psychological quicksand. Self–knowledge is but the first step. The best therapists will admit this. After self–knowledge must come self–acceptance: “This is my history. This is my heredity. These are my deficits, my weaknesses, and my gifts”. The third step is the handing–over to God of the whole complex, messy reality, trusting in Him to salvage all that is worth salvaging, to dispose of all that toxic, and to heal and perfect those things that are infirm and incomplete.
These three steps—(1) self-knowledge, (2) self-acceptance, and (3) self-offering—are helpful and, at certain moments in life, they may be necessary, but there is another way, a simpler way, and it consists in this: a simple, adoring, act of presence to the presence of God. In this, all that needs to be said to God is said implicitly. In this, the soul is exposed to God, opened to His divine action, and disinfected, that is purified, by the radiance of the Divine Countenance. Posuisti iniquitates nostras in conspectu tuo; sæculum nostrum in illuminatione vultus tui. “Thou hast set our iniquities before thy eyes: our life in the light of thy countenance” (Psalm 89:8). Mother Mectilde writes of this to a Religious of the Monastery of Toul in 1678:
Blessed the soul that attends faithfully to her God by this secret and admirable way of silence. Never depart from it lest you become unfaithful. If, in this silence, one should say to you, “What are you doing?” You yourself do not know what you are doing: your support is naked faith. Be content that God knows it and that He knows it through and through.